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KYIV — Looking out from the historic Gorodetsky House in central Kyiv now surrounded by sandbags and heavy armory, Volodymyr Zelenskyy had one big ask for his guests on Thursday: Take Ukraine’s wish to enter the EU seriously.
Zelenskyy welcomed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to a heavily fortified compound in the heart of Kyiv as part of a day-long series of meetings between the Zelenskyy government and EU officials, during a visit rich with symbolism.
Though this was von der Leyen’s fourth visit to Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion nearly a year ago, it was the first where she was joined by a gaggle of EU commissioners, the officials tasked with overseeing the bloc’s major initiatives.
The gathering also took place on the eve of Friday’s high-stakes EU-Ukraine summit, where von der Leyen will be joined by European Council chief Charles Michel. It’s the first time an EU event of this kind will take place in an active war zone.
Beneath the ornate ceilings of the art nouveau building looking down on Maidan Square, itself a site infused with revolutionary history, Zelenskyy and von der Leyen presented a united front as they stood side by side in front of a row of Ukrainian and EU flags.
Zelenskyy’s message was unequivocal: Ukraine’s future lies with Europe. And as the Ukrainian leader made the case for Ukraine’s EU membership, he argued that Ukraine was not only defending itself.
“It is a motivation to defend our state, first of all, and consequently the entire Europe against the biggest anti-European force in the world,” he told the room of journalists. “It is really important for our people.”
Casting accession to the EU as “the next logical step” for EU-Ukraine relations, he said it was important “not only to have victories in the battlefield,” but also to believe in a peaceful Europe.
And he also injected a new sense of urgency into his plea, noting that Russia is now “concentrating forces and getting ready to take revenge, not only against Ukraine but also against free Europe.”
‘We stand by Ukraine’
EU member states agreed to grant EU candidate status to Ukraine in June — itself a record, as it scrambled to respond to Kyiv’s request, lodged within days of Russia’s invasion.
At the same time, the 27 EU countries had to keep in mind how some of its other neighbors have been waiting in the wings for years to join the bloc, as well as ensuring that EU enlargement — a process that typically takes years — continues to follow proper checks and balances.
That delicate balancing act was fully in evidence in Kyiv on Thursday.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who earlier told POLITICO that he envisions a two-year timeframe for Ukraine joining the Union, doubled down on this bold timetable at an evening press conference with von der Leyen.
“During this year, we have an ambition to have all the steps regarding the negotiations kick off,” he said, underlining a need to move “very rapidly.”
Overwhelming pro-EU sentiment was on display throughout the capital, where EU flags and symbols adorned some buildings ahead of Friday’s summit. Ukraine must seize the opportunity and capitalize on that sentiment, Shmyhal argued.
“There is unity among society, among politicians, that allows us to pass the required legislation and government acts as soon as possible,” he said, referring to the seven prerequisite steps the Commission has outlined for accession talks to begin in earnest. These include cleaning up the country’s corruption problems.
Throughout Thursday’s events, EU officials refused to be drawn into a timeline — though von der Leyen said Ukraine had made “impressive progress” on the recommendations.
Instead, von der Leyen and the wider Commission group highlighted how the EU is deepening its relationship with Ukraine in other ways.
The group of 16 commissioners, meeting in plenary with the Ukrainian government Cabinet, discussed a score of subjects, from humanitarian aid to education; to energy, defense and further integration with the bloc’s single market.
Several key commitments emerged, announced by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. These include training 15,000 more Ukrainian troops; a memorandum of understanding on renewable energy; opening an office for Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship scientific research initiative, in Kyiv; and including Ukraine in a number of EU programs that will allow Ukrainian businesses and agencies to access EU funds and projects.
“The clear message of this meeting is that we stand by Ukraine as firmly as ever,” von der Leyen said alongside the Ukrainian prime minister as the meeting concluded, emphasizing the practical deliverables of this first-of-its-kind gathering.
The next big test for accession will be an informal summary of Ukraine’s progress, expected to be presented in April. Whether this provides enough clarity — and hope — for Ukraine to stay on its reform route and accelerate its accession prospects will be a key question as Zelenskyy meets with the EU’s top dogs Friday, when Ukraine’s wish to join the bloc will again be on the agenda.